The constantly changing weather is making planning ahead quite difficult, but the sea is definitely warming up, and so the boating season is firmly underway. I have remarked before that I do not understand why we should have so few seabirds (although there seem to be more gulls about this year), when there is certainly no shortage of fish. However, from time to time something interesting quite literally appears on the horizon.
We were out one day last week when we saw a low, planing flight over the sea, dark against the sombre water on a day of oily calm or occasional slight swell. It was immediately evocative for both of us; we are familiar with the manx shearwater which nests on the dramatic island of Rum in the Small Isles off Scotland's West Coast, and this clearly had to belong to the same family, which includes the bulkier fulmar with which some readers may be more familiar. We went in the direction of the bird we had seen, and as we got closer, it turned out that there were, ultimately, six of them, as well as one immature gannet; this was, interestingly, often followed by one of the other birds.
As we got nearer and switched off the motor, the birds began to circle around the boat at intervals, and it became clear that these were definitely shearwaters, but of a type we had not seen before. They were perhaps larger, at least longer-winged than a fulmar, but much slimmer, more like a larger version of the manx, but definitely brownish on the back and wing. There was also a conspicuous, narrow, white band above the short, dark tail, and the birds had a dark cap above a pale throat and white breast. Having noted these main characteristics, we sat entranced, as they flew around us, skimming the surface of the sea in a long, low, undulating flight. We could see quite clearly the complex tube-nose which all members of the petrel family possess, from the tiny storm petrel to the mighty albatross. I have recently read that it is now thought that this characteristic nose helps the bird gauge the air pressure as it passes over the waves.
Once home, it was out with the books and we were surprised how many possible candidates there were, including the balearic and Cory's shearwaters. But although the former are clearly rather more "local", we decided eventually that these were definitely the great (or greater!) shearwater, which really belongs to the Atlantic. Looking carefully at the illustrations, I have come to the conclusion that these were immature birds, non-breeders. The petrels do not breed until they are perhaps eight or nine years old; several of them seem to live to be at least forty. In those first years, they range all over the oceans of the world, and our birds had clearly opted for a Mediterranean break - and who can blame them?